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You are your own worst enemy, indeed. In this month’s matchup, we pit Windows 8.1 against its predecessor, Windows 8, in not so much an outright battle, but a comparison of some of the more notable tweaks that Microsoft has slapped into its first refresh of the controversial operating system. Just make sure you tell your system to stop hitting itself, OK?
Do you like clutter? Then you must be loving Windows 8 right about now; the Start Screen can be a power user’s worst enemy.
We’ll begrudgingly give Windows 8.1 the win here, but that’s not to say we agree with the way Microsoft went about changing Windows 8’s access to applications. The now-included Start button within Windows 8.1’s desktop mode is hardly a Start button in the normal, Windows 7-or-older sense of the phrase. Rather, it takes one back to the standard ol’ Start Screen much as if you accidentally poked the Windows key on your keyboard. No fair.
We do, however, appreciate some of the subtle modifications made to this Start Screen. It includes a more direct shortcut to one’s (newly filter-friendly) All Apps menu, as well as a more strict interpretation of just what gets dumped onto your Start Screen when you install an app. With Windows 8, slapping the Combined Community Codec Pack, for instance, littered our Start Screen with shortcuts. On Windows 8.1, zilch; you only get the tile dump if you go All Apps.
Winner: Windows 8.1
Windows 8.1 takes the cake in this category, if for nothing else than its newfound ability to allow users to boot directly to the desktop upon Windows’ startup. However, Microsoft has also kicked up Windows 8’s Snap View feature in this update, freeing you from the confines of only being able to view two apps at once within Modern.
We also like that you can now have Windows 8.1 jump to the Start Screen or the Apps view when you tap the Start button. It’s a simple tweak that gives power users access to everything if they want it, and users who prefer a more simplified Start Screen far less of a headache.
Those looking to build a little more unity between their desktop and Start Screen can now elect to use a matching background for both. The OS also comes with a host of new options for background patterns and images.
Winner: Windows 8.1
It ain’t perfect by any means—sorry, Windows users: Google and Apple beat your built-in offering by a country mile—but we do appreciate the improvements found within Windows 8.1’s official app store. You’re still stuck with horizontal scrolling, unfortunately, but at least Microsoft is attempting to make it a little easier for users to find apps they might want to install and play with.
Case in point: The store now features a lovely “Trending” section right on its front page that should, ideally, show you which apps users find most interesting. The same goes for its brand-new (and aptly titled) “New & Rising” section, as well as the easily accessible lists of Top Paid and Top Free apps.
We also find ourselves loving the integration of the right-click App Bar that pulls up easily accessible (or finger-tap-able) categories of apps in addition to a list of that which you’ve already installed. That said, this is still a fairly lame-o app store.
Winner: Windows 8.1
We’re torn. What should real search functionality be within an operating system? Just something that searches for files and data throughout your hard drives? A hybridized, Windows 8–like approach that allows you to search for specific apps, search within settings on your desktop, and even search within the apps themselves?
Microsoft seems to still be unsure what you should receive when you start typing random letters on Windows 8.1’s Start Screen. In Windows 8.1, search now integrates a Bing-based web search for whatever it is you’re typing on the Start Screen in addition to a search of anything on your system. That’s the default “Everything” view, which you can isolate to Settings, Files, Web Images, and Videos via a provided filter.
If you’re looking to search within apps—like, say, your email—you have to pull up the app itself to do so. We shrug.
Windows 8.1 packs a ton of additional SkyDrive functionality into the operating system by default, making it more of a useful companion than a semi-hidden afterthought.
Take, for example, the simple fact that you can now see exactly how much SkyDrive storage you’re using (and have remaining) within the new SkyDrive settings menu in Modern’s PC Settings area. (And, of course, you can also quickly purchase more.)
Flip on SkyDrive, and you’ll also be given the option to save your documents to the cloud by default instead of your local hard drive—a pleasant little way to ensure you’re always cloud-connected. Windows 8.1 comes with additional settings that you can back up or synchronize to the cloud, and SkyDrive now integrates wonderfully within File Explorer itself. Simply put, you can access your SkyDrive files (if online) without having to synchronize them, and you can select files or folders to “Make Offline” as you see fit.
Winner: Windows 8.1
Windows 8.1 gives you a flood of tiles, but only if you want it; otherwise, your Start Screen is far less headache-inducing after you’ve installed a few apps.
We’re not going to lie; it would be a bit silly to think that an update to a major operating system is ultimately worse than the original version of the OS. Then again, take Microsoft’s track record into account—it did take a big service pack to make Windows Vista palatable. While Windows 8.1 wins the day against Windows 8, keep in mind that there are things about the update that might be a bit jarring; you might not even like them. But, hey, there’s always Windows 8.2?